Winter’s Bone

What struck me first, when Winter’s Bone came to an end, was that Americans don’t make pictures like this. Largely silent, intently focused, and hugely reliant on the viewer’s empathy, it is one of those movies about common, even primitive people that are doomed to find their most appreciative audience among metropolitan types. When they succeed, as Winter’s Bone certainly does, it’s in the teeth of a defiance that’s aimed mostly at the hero’s adversaries but also in part at the audience, forbidding it to condescend.

This is a movie without a background; aside from some vaguely-sketched family history, time exists only as the medium in which the story is told. But the story begins with the wreckage wrought upon the heroine’s family by a plague of methamphetamines that began long before the she was born, and Debra Granik, who has no intention of cluttering her spare film with generalizing backstory about the plague, leaves it to us to make sense of the wreckage. From Nick Reding’s inestimable Methland, I had learned that methamphetamines, like all opiates and their synthetic kin, destroy families in two ways. The drug itself is toxic to character, but so is the traffic. The money that sprouts in the corruption of drug-dealing seems almost an embodiment of the euphoria that spurts amidst somatic degradation. What distinguishes methamphetamines from so-called “recreational” drugs is that it begins as crutch for overworked laborers, enabling them, initially at least, to put in enough hours to put food on their families’ table. The irony of this metastasized work ethic is crushing.

The story that Winter’s Bone has to tell is very simple. Jessup Dolly, a crack methamphetamine cook, has pledged his home as collateral for a bail bond — and then disappeared. This home is all that Ree, his seventeen year-old daughter, has in the world, which would be bad enough if she did not have the care of her broken-minded mother and her two younger siblings, both still children. Her only other resource is her extended family. But the ties that bind this clan have been corroded by drugs. Ree needs to find her father, dead or alive, in order to keep a roof over her charges’ heads, but her cousins are conflicted about helping her. It’s never spelled out why they’re conflicted; that would only make for more clutter, distracting us from experiencing Ree’s ordeal as closely as she experiences it as possible. Old people might be interested in long-standing grudges, but young people find family history suffocating. Ree couldn’t care less about her father’s fallings-out. She doesn’t care very much about him. All she wants is a home for her family.

Ree’s doggedness eventually creates a scandal: why is no one helping the poor girl? That one of her aids is the woman who has subjected her to a savage beating isn’t at all, by the time it happens, surprising. Warned off from the search for her father, Ree isn’t the slightest bit pig-headed, but she has no other options. And she has never been in a position to compromise — she has never had any negotiating chips. Her father’s improvidence gives her her first counter in the wearying game of dead-end adulthood: she can give up on her mother, her brother, and her sister. Her refusal to do so eventually reminds everyone else of what’s good about the human heart.

Ms Granik’s cast is never less than persuasive, but to assist her young star, Jennifer Lawrence, she has two fantastic supporting actors, John Hawkes, as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop; and Dale Dickey, as Merab, the most baleful challenge to Ree’s ordeal. Ms Lawrence’s performance is so transcendent that it withers the full bouquet of laudatory adjectives. That’s part of the un-American-ness of Winter’s Bone: it demands an un-American reticence.

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